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Stanton Harcourt – Turn 2

WITTENHAM CLUMPS BROKE into a broad grin as he read the note Stanton had handed him. '"Your friend", eh? My word! My guess is, the only danger you're in is that of not spending the night in your own bed! Little minx probably thought a hint of intrigue would be needed to snare the bold Explorator - eh? "Bring your sword"! I'll wager it's another weapon she has in mind - eh?"

Stanton laughed along with his friend in a slightly forced way, but he was surprised that Clumps could take the matter so lightly. After all, the old man had been severely injured at Basin Place, so clearly the affair was not without danger. Still, that was Clumps's way: ever ready with a quip or piece of banter, he'd been a marvel at keeping spirits up on ship during those long passages of the Morbific.

'Well, I shall certainly attend,' Stanton proclaimed, with perhaps a hint of bluster. 'Why, wild thurbos wouldn't keep me from it!'

'That's the spirit! Give her a kiss for an old man, eh?'

'But, Clumps - if I'm not here at visiting hour tomorrow, tell the Watch, would you? After all, you never know...'

'Of course, if you wish it - I'll wager, though, that by this time tomorrow you'll be as happy as a sand-fish in clover.'

AS STANTON STRODE away from the hospital, wondering whether he was being wise in not going straight to Captain Greene, he realised that he had forgotten to tell his friend of the morrow's interview with the King. Clumps would surely have been cheered by the news. Still, tomorrow night he might have an even better report - the King was generous to those who he believed served the country well.

It was now quite dark, and Stanton's breath formed clouds of steam as he walked through the quiet streets around the Auditorium. The REC should still be open - they were probably dining even now - and it might be that some of the names of those who had attended his lectures would have been recorded. Crossing the Viaduct into Flitwing proper, he was surprised to see a bonfire burning in Chattel Square down the way. It was unusual for the Watch to allow fires to be lit in the city, because of the danger of the flames spreading. There were a dozen or so people around it, poor folk of the city by their rags, and they stared at Stanton with some hostility as he crossed over. There were more and more of these people in Rangar: come in from the country in the hope of finding wealth, but coming to see that the streets of the capital were not paved with gold crowns after all. There was simply not enough labour in the new manufactories for all of them. It suddenly occurred to Stanton that walking alone in the city at night was perhaps not such a safe pastime as it had been in his youth. Although an gentleman could easily scare off a few bullies with a firm gaze and a steady tone, if he were rushed by a handful of the brutes he might be in some danger. The attack on the Medarch in the room next to Wittenham's demonstrated that.

Climbing up the hill on which the Commission stood, Stanton passed a Watch patrol - just two Watchers and an officer. They were gathered under a street-light and muttering to each other. All three touched their caps as he passed, but Stanton did not find this gesture as reassuring as he once had. Perhaps it was his experience of the rebarbative Captain Greene which had somewhat tarnished his faith in the Watch: or perhaps it was concern over Heitman Kirkland's seeming inaction on Rory's case. As he approached the REC doors, his pace quickened, and he skipped up the steps with a nebulous sense of relief.

THE ATRIUM OF the Royal Exploratory Commission was a rather fine chamber. It was fronted by an imposing brick façade, with an elegant marble stairway leading up to its great oaken doors. To either side of the stair were couched heraldic beasts, emblematic of the dangers of exploration: the ant-beast of Galiche, a savage dolphin curled to spring, a bashful-looking lion, a bloody-fanged thurbo, and others of whose identity even Stanton was uncertain. Outside the door was a uniformed flunkey, who silently ushered him inward into the warm entrance-hall.

As Stanton came through the door he was passed by Philip Graveside, a young Explorator he knew none too well: burly, with a red velvet cloak and a bushy dark beard, Graveside swaggered out as if he owned the place. He was followed by a small, thin, scuttling woman clutching a black notebook. He nodded at Stanton as they passed in a rather cursory way. The woman looked up at Stanton with some interest, winked once and the scurried away after Graveside.

In the chamber there seemed to be some sort of disagreement going on. Jaime Paravane was there, arguing vehemently with Alys Walker, the Council's secretary. Listening keenly were three young girls, in their late teens perhaps, sisters by their appearance and none too well dressed: with a start, Stanton recognised them as having attended all his lectures. Also present was a tall, handsome man of middle years with striking blue eyes: Stanton had not seen him before.

'Now, Alys,' Paravane was saying, 'this really will not do, you know. Pressman has been keeping these good people waiting, and don't you think that we all have a responsibility to serve them?' His voice had its customary ironic tone. He caught Stanton's eye where he stood, hesitating, just inside the door.

he three girls clutched at each other as though in terror, sobbing gently. "Wh-what are we to do?", the eldest cried. "We have no more money for lodging, after these three days of waiting!'

Alys shrugged helplessly. 'The fact is, Sieur, he is unable to attend... I can say no more than that. If you would like to come back tomorrow, I'm sure he will be here, or one of the other Council members will be able to help you... I'm sure of that.' She turned to Stanton with some relief. 'That's right, isn't it, Master Harcourt?'

The blue-eyed man seemed to come to a decision. He addressed Paravane: 'Sieur, my name is Valentine Kincade, and if Pressman is unavailable perhaps you would do me the honour of taking lunch with me tomorrow?'

Paravane smiled gently. 'Why, it would afford me great pleasure, Master Kincade: shall I meet you at your lodging?'

'Very well - I have rooms at the King Moritz. Now, dear creatures,' turning to the girls, 'pray do not fret. As we seem to be bound on a similar venture, it would not be seemly of me to allow you to fall into the hands of misfortune so early in our adventure, not when I am lodged in a comfortable inn of good repute and passable service not more than a brisk stroll from these offices, and I know for a fact there are rooms laying empty.'

Kincade's charm seemed rather elephantine to Stanton, but it seemed to work on the girls {who, to his slight annoyance, had not yet noticed his presence}. 'B-but sir,' the eldest whimpered, 'we have no money for an inn...'

Kincade waved this protest aside. 'No, no, dear ladies: I will bear the cost, which to me is minimal compared to the worry that would haunt me were I to think of three such fair ladies walking the streets of Rangar without a roof over their heads, or a morsel of bread to give them strength. No, I am not the kind of man who could allow such a situation to arise!'

Paravane caught Stanton's eye again, over Kincade's shoulder, and made a silent spewing motion. Stanton involuntarily snorted with laughter and quickly turned it into a cough. Kincade looked at him assessingly and shepherded the three girls, all smiles now, towards the door. As they passed Stanton all three curtsied slightly to him.

'WHAT A BOOR, eh! Bluff Pangaturese charm! In Galena he'd have been laughed out of existence!' Paravane made no attempt to control his mirth once Kincade had left.

'What's this about Pressman?' Stanton asked, sharply.

'Oh, Master Harcourt, he's disappeared! He's not been seen all day, and there's no answer at his house!'

'Probably off with some floozy - no need for alarm!' Paravane was all smiles again. 'I must be off now - best of luck tomorrow, Harcourt!' He strode away and mounted the stairs towards the dining-hall.

Stanton turned back to Alys Walker. 'Alys, those lectures I gave... was there any record kept of those present?'

'Well... we took names at the end, of those who came up wanting to find out more, but not of everyone who came though the door... it didn't seem worth it, as some of them were just there for the mulled wine I th-th-think -' she stammered suddenly, realising what she had said '- alth-though most were very interested, of course.'

Stanton sighed. 'Can I just see the lists, please, Alys?'

IT WAS PAST ten by the time Stanton reached Basin Place. The lists of names had been useless: he could remember the names of all those who'd expressed a firm interest in emigrating, and there were no other unaccounted-for female names. Oh well, so much for that: it would have been nice to have something to surprise the girl with, but it wasn't essential.

Every time he approached the house, now, his mind leapt back to the night of the burglary {if it could be called that}. The thought that some stranger had broken into his house, lurked there and nearly brained Wittenham was deeply disturbing. Rangar was as much of a jungle as Cabrena, it seemed at times, and its beasts had sharper claws.

AFTER A LIGHT supper - he was too nervous to eat a proper meal - Stanton took his rapier out from the cupboard in which it had lain for some months. It was a fine blade, which had been presented to him by the mayor of Lean in gratitude for his efforts exploring the lands around the colony, The sheath was thunder-hog leather, chased with silver and lined with calfskin, and the hilt had a large piece of jade set into its end, making the sword rather difficult to grip properly. Fortunately the sheath had kept the blade clean, and the edge was still sharp enough to shave with.

He carried out a couple of fleches at the mirror. Yes, the old muscles were still there - but sadly rusty. He'd imagined that his life of adventure was on one side for the moment, and had allowed himself to get out of condition, Sighing, he set himself to working though the practice moves old Sieur Gadolino had drummed into him as a boy. What a brute the man had been - his ears still smarted remembering the buffets he'd received at the fencing-master's hands. And Gadolino had always favoured Rory, who seemed to have more natural grace about his movements.

The more Stanton thought about it the more impossible it seemed that Rory could be dead. It simply didn't make sense. His brother might well have fallen for a local girl, but to suppose that he'd been set upon and his body disposed of by village ruffians was absurd. Rory never went out without his sword, and would have been more than a match for one or two assailants: and if there had been more than that someone would have been bound to have talked by now.

There came a knock at the door. One of the new maids - Jenny? - was there with a letter on a silver salver. 'This came for you this evening, sir.' She bobbed and left.

Stanton carefully put the sword down and examined the missive. To his relief it was in his sister's handwriting.

Stanton frowned. What was Jemima after? This friendly tone was unlike her. So, Clifton wanted to appoint a manager for the estate? It sounded as though the Hampdens were confident Rory would not return, then. And who was Mary Woodvine? He vaguely remembered Equester Walter Woodvine, whose estate Mellangoose bordered the Harcourt lands - he had died in the Colonial War. Had he been married? Obviously so. Stanton put the letter aside and returned to his blade.

BY HALF-PAST ELEVEN the night was bitterly cold. Stanton drew his cloak tightly about him as he stepped from the doorway of Basin Place, keeping one hand on the hilt of the rapier underneath. There was no-one in the Place, and his footsteps sounded unnaturally loud and echoey as he strode towards Union Square. Each street-lamp had around it a nimbus of light: a thick fog was rolled over the city, just above head height.

As he approached Union Square his footsteps slowed almost involuntarily, and he took a firmer grip on the rapier. He was five minutes early, but might an adversary be waiting for him already? He peered nervously around the corner of the last building in Quay Street and was relieved to see no-one in the square. The three roads leading out of it had lights at their ends, but the great statue in the middle was unlit and could be discerned only by its silhouette. Why had Moritz III commissioned such a huge monument? He had fought no battles, so the warlike equestrian pose was unrepresentative as well as in poor taste. Stanton hastened over to conceal himself in the shadows around the pediment.

A slender arm reached out from the gloom and drew him inwards. He clutched at his sword with nervousness, but at once realised it was the girl. In the darkness all he could make out were her eyes: all else was shrouded in black. Probably the same was true of himself, he realised.

'Stay very quiet,' she whispered, 'and do no more than nod or shake your head.'

Stanton opened his mouth to respond, then closed it and nodded instead.

'Good. My name is Toma, and I am your friend, or rather your brother's friend.'

'Rory?' Stanton exclaimed despite himself. 'Is he alive?'

'Sshhh! Yes, he is, but in danger, as are you. You both have a powerful enemy - Kirkland, and behind him others of the Cabal.'

'The Cabal?' Stanton whispered. 'King Geraint's advisors?' It seemed implausible that the great ministers of state would have much concern about him and his brother. Also, from the way she had mentioned him, it seemed that Kirkland was counted among their number, which was news.

'Advisors? Captors, more like! Our master is the only one of them who is a true friend of Pangaturan, and he has to act by subterfuge.'

'You serve one of them? Who?'

'That I cannot say - wait! What was that?'

They both strained to hear the faint, muffled echoing sound.

'It sounded like - a door opening?' murmured Stanton.

Toma relaxed slightly. 'That will be our friends. Across the way there is a manhole cover - you can find our people if you descend, if you are in great need of help.' She seemed to be drawing herself up to leave.

'Wait!' hissed Stanton deperately. 'You haven't told me anything yet!'

She sighed. 'I can only tell you a little - what you know already is enough to betray us if you should be captured. Know this, then - Kirkland is your enemy, because of a discovery your brother made which he believes he may have shared with you. Some of the Watch can be trusted, but most are his tools. Rangar is not a safe place for you. They would not dare move against you openly, but beware their subterfuge.'

'I must know more! What did Rory discover? What are Kirkland's aims? Where does the King fit in?'

'Enough! I can tell you no more!' All at once there was a dazzling flare of blueish light from the mouth of Cannon Street. Stanton found his rapier naked in his hand - he had no idea how it had come there. There was a cry, and two shapes seemed to erupt out of the cobbles and charge towards the light. There was the clash of metal on metal, and he realised that Toma had slipped away from his side. He edged carefully around the statue to try and see what was happening. The blue light was still burning and fizzing, looking like nothing so much as St Moel's fire around a masthead, and in it he could see four - no, three - struggling figures. One was wearing a long, black cloak.

Suddenly Stanton was knocked to his knees by a terrific blow to the side of the head. He shook his head feebly, seeing implosions of light and tasting blood and tooth, and staggered dizzily back to his feet just in time to avoid another blow from the huge man who stood there. The metal-bound club made a hideous clanging din as it smashed against the statue. His assailant - in the darkness Stanton could see the gleam of his teeth, which seemed pointed, like those of a wolf - laughed a dreadful rasping growl and raised the club again. As it swung in Stanton grasped the man's wrist, stepped inside the weapon and drove his blade squarely through the brute's midriff. It felt like punching a brick wall, and the jar shocked the rapier out of his hand. With a bubbling moan the man slumped to the ground, dark liquid pouring out of his mouth, clutching at Stanton's cloak as he fell and bringing him down on top. He could see that the other combat had also finished: there was a solitary figure lying on the cobbles by the bollards in the mouth of Cannon Street.

Stanton was overcome by violent nausea as he tried to straighten up. His head hurt abominably and, as he gingerly put his hand up to it, he felt a mess of bloody hair. The movement made him sick again, and he retched painfully over the body of his attacker. His vision cleared slightly and he saw to his horror that the dead man wore a Rangar City Watch badge on his breast.


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